How to develop the biorhythms of a prime minister

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Nicholas Pyke finds Richard Dawkins keen to play down science's Bunsen burner image.

Biology should be viewed as the new classics, a complete liberal education in itself. This is the latest colourful assertion from Oxford professor, best-selling author and iconoclast of science, Richard Dawkins.

Professor Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and a leading populariser of genetics and evolutionary theory, has already suggested science lessons should replace religious education. He once characterised religious belief as a form of "virus".

This week, he suggested that candidates for the civil service or even high political office should consider biology as the natural subject for the best and broadest minds.

"I should really like to push biology as the new classics, as the education which people have who want to go out and run the world," said Professor Dawkins, who coincidentally has a new book out this week. "It provides a superb general liberal education in just the same way as classics.

"I would like to see people going into biology not because they wish to become experts in weedkiller - useful as that might be - but because they want to go into the Foreign Office or become Prime Minister.

"It teaches you how to think and how to write. It teaches you a statistical way of reasoning as well as a merely logical way. Many people find logic quite easy. Statistics are not on the whole taught, but are quite difficult."

Professor Dawkins's claims for science are not so different from those once made by English departments: it is the subject that deals with life itself.

"I'm often accused of elevating science to a religion. It would actually make rather a good religious education. If you think about the sense of awe and wonder which religion has always tried to evoke, science evokes that with a hundred times greater force. Religion is pathetic in comparison."

But this broader view of science, he says, does not sit easily with the utilitarian, test tube-dominated approach that currently prevails.

"My guess is from my own experience that science could be made more palatable if it were made less practical and more arousing of a sense of wonder. I would play down the Bunsen burner image and play up the excitement of the universe.

"We should not constantly harp on about how useful science is, but treat it as you would treat Latin, history and art. It arouses the same sorts of enthusiasm."

The title of Professor Dawkins's new book, Climbing Mount Improbable, refers in metaphor to one of the most common criticisms of evolution. In particular, it challenges the assertion that the odds against, for example, the human eye evolving by chance are so huge that some master mechanic must be behind it. The creationists, says the author, are staring at a sheer cliff face, unable to comprehend how human beings reached the top of Mount Improbable without supernatural assistance.

The book goes on to argue that natural selection, so far from relying on chance, is the means of an incremental and entirely unsurprising ascent up the long scarp face of the mountain, spiders' webs and human eyes included.

An accurate grasp of what constitutes chance, risk and probability is, says Professor Dawkins, among the many benefits of a good scientific education.

This view could be unfortunate for National lottery organiser Camelot if it ever gained a wider hold: "It's about understanding evidence and making your own decisions. A scientific training is useful for arousing proper scepticism. Really, no one should go in for the lottery, not if they expect to win. "

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